Reviving neglected rivers through art

Throughout history, rivers have played an important role in birthing and sustaining civilizations across the world. These have served as sources of food and fresh water, as transport highways, and as hubs for livelihood and recreation alike. However, for some rivers, their role in keeping communities alive seems to have already been forgotten. Such is the case of the Marikina River. Three centuries ago, people flocked to the Marikina River, drawn by the fertile lands and the fresh water and built a thriving farming community around the river. The river helped power the community’s growth and development, eventually forming Marikina into the bustling city that it is today. As concrete and steel began to replace the farmlands, the waste produced by the city polluted the river, turning what was once the center of a lively community into a major cause of flooding. As part of its efforts to breathe new life to the world’s rivers, the Thames Festival Trust and the British Council have brought Rivers of the World, a global arts and education program, to the Philippines. The Rivers of the World project aims to provide opportunities for teachers and elementary and high school students to learn about their local rivers and to instil an appreciation for them.

“The Rivers of the World project consists of three aspects—the environmental aspect, where we encourage young people to think about the river in their city and the relationship that they have with that river; the arts aspect, where the students are encouraged to create an artwork for public display; and lastly, the public display aspect, where the artworks will be shown in London and in partner cities around the world,” said Thames Trust Foundation Festival Director Adrian Evans. “What we would like at the end of this project is for young people to understand and respect their rivers,” added Evans. “We hope that this project would enable them develop a sense of responsibility for their own environment.”

The Thames Festival Trust and the British Council partnered with the City Government of Marikina and the Department of Education’s Marikina City Division to conduct art workshops for elementary and high school students of Industrial Valley Elementary School, Concepcion Integrated Elementary School, Malanday Elementary School, Nangka High School, Malanday High School, and Concepcion Integrated High School. A total of 120 students participated in the art workshops, which were conducted by Design Centre of the Philippines artist John Atienza. In addition to overseeing the art workshops, Atienza also educated the students about the history of the Marikina River, the role that the river played in the city’s growth and development, and the challenges that the river now faces. The goal of the project was to produce six art pieces to highlight the key themes of the Rivers of the World project, namely: river of life, river culture, river city, resourceful river, polluted river, and working river.

The project will culminate in September 2015, where the artworks will be put on display throughout the Thames River in London for Totally Thames, an annual event that brings the river to life through arts, cultural, and river events. For British Council Philippines Country Director Nicholas Thomas, the Rivers of the World project is an opportunity to bring Philippine and UK schools together through a single cause. “The Rivers of the World project is relevant in the Philippines because the rivers are a large part of people’s lives here, as they are in the UK,” said Thomas. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring schools in the Philippines closer to UK schools.”The Philippine schools will be connected to their UK counterparts through the British Council’s online platform, Connecting Classrooms, which allows schools to share their knowledge and to build a relationship with the school and students in the partner city. “We’re hoping that the schools in the Philippines would take advantage of the opportunities and the learning experiences that the project provides,” added Thomas. “This partnership can help spark not just the students’ creativity, but also enhance their collaboration skills.”

Evans hopes that the Rivers of the World project would encourage young Filipinos to take a more active stake in cleaning up and maintaining the river and its surrounding environment. “If young people can start to appreciate their river, then maybe for future generations, the Marikina River can be at the center of a beautiful urban park that this city can be proud of,” noted Evans. “The river is an important part of the city; it’s such an important asset to a community. If everyone wanted to, you can fix it within a generation.” The Philippines has more than 400 principal river basins, 18 of which are considered as major ones.